Sam Judd takes a look at Poor Things, playing at Leeds International Film Festival 2023.
Yorgos Lanthimos does it again! Poor Things is a beautiful meditation on life and growing up. It tells of the mistakes we all have to make to truly find out who we are in this lovely, crazy and indeed sometimes brutal messed up world. If we don’t find the individual inside us all, what separates us from the beasts?
The film centres on Bella Baxter who is played to perfection by the ever marvellous Emma Stone. Bella is a creation of the brilliant if unorthodox Dr. Godwin Baxter, played by Willem Dafoe, who Bella lovingly refers to as God. Bella is engaged to Godwin’s loveable if forgettable assistant Max McCandles, played by Ramy Youssef. All is well in this Shelly-esque set-up until Mark Ruffalo’s devilish rake Duncan Wedderburn makes his appearance and convinces Bella to run away with him. We watch Bella’s evolution on her odyssey as she discovers life’s many joys and hardships.
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Drawing inspiration from Alasdair Gray’s acclaimed 1992 novel of the same name, Lanthimos and his team craft a joyous and sometimes off-kilter, dreamscape of a film. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s hypnotic visuals brings to life this weird and wonderful tale, making every frame seem like a work of art in a way that is not unlike Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975).
Adding in Wide Angle Lenses and techniques such as the Dutch Angle create a sense of uneasiness. A visual style which the DOP and directorial team experimented with on The Favourite (2018) but now fall back on with an assuredness which was perhaps missing in that earlier film. This combined with Jerskin Fendrix’s deliciously avant-garde score makes for some of the most moving and heartfelt sequences in the film bringing with it a sense of opera.
The slightly Steampunk costumes and production design puts one in mind of Guillermo del Toro’s work, namely Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), mixed with some definite Wes Anderson inspired design work but with a darker more fairy-tale element. The surrealist touch conjures up Salvador Dali with just a hint of H. R. Giger. Bella’s costume is a hybrid of a period queen, the Bride from James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Morticia Addams from Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family (1991) turning into a 21st century Frida Kahlo. There is also a Shakespearean quality to the proceedings.
The acting is tremendous, with Ruffalo’s upper-class English accent stealing the show, and the relationship between Bella and Godwin transcending that of mere creation and creator into something more paternal. That is credit to the talents of Stone and Dafoe whose chemistry is unshakeable.
However it’s important to mention the script here, penned by Tony Mcnamara, who expertly captures the trials and tribulations of parenthood . There is also something about a woman finding her way in a man’s world, whether that is through travel, literature or sexual exploration, that feels reminiscent of Jean-Marc Vallée‘s extremely under-appreciated Wild (2014), so instead of “ It’s alive!” you could say “She’s alive and her name is Bella Baxter.”
Poor Things played at Leeds International Film Festival, and is out in cinemas on the 12th January 2024.